Who decides: who was kin to whom? Ideally past people!

In contrast to the search for beauty, which is of course in the eye of the beholder, modern anthropological practice stresses that the observer should avoid an imposition of kinship upon their subjects.[i] This is a challenging concept that needs to be part of the critical thinking involved in both genealogical reconstruction and more importantly when working with reconstructed social networks through kinship collation.

The enlightenment thinker Adam Smith dismissed the ability of people to maintain kinship if they weren’t regularly encountering and engaging with each other, his benchmark was weekly.[ii] Davidoff in the last decade pointed out that the large nineteenth century families made it implausible that all the siblings would know each other well, let only for every member of the following generation, the cousins, to be in strong relationships with all the other cousins.[iii] This handful of writers then ask what do we mean by kinship, a topic covered by many in anthropology and sociology but less often amongst those intrigued by genealogy, for anybody interested in using genealogy reconstruction to grapple with historical theories it is vital to grasp what is meant by and what they mean by kinship.[iv]

At an entry level to this we have to be careful not to assume that just because individuals share a common name, a common ancestor or even a common household for a period of time that those linkages meant anything to them in the long-term. Interesting there is also a challenge to understand that kinship doesn’t have to be positive, consider the kin slaughter of the fifteenth century English Civil Wars.[v] Big debates also take place about whether daughters are more reliable as kinfolk than sons, and whether the state offers a better social safety net than kin networks for past people, arguably a flaw with these debates has been that ideas of kinship have been bounded by the limits of the household.[vi]

Recently I have been working with some ideas around kinship connectivity and migration; related people gradually moving continents and settling close to each other and then moving on again as a group.[vii]

A woman Alexandria M Gordon, b.1892 in Winnipeg, appeared from part of the research. She illustrates how the meaningful relationships of past people, kinship, can be unravelled from a sparse official record. Her birth is captured by the Manitoban government and her residency in 1901 is picked up by the national census. This enumeration labelled her as a niece of the head of her household George Mutch b. 1832 Aberdeenshire d.1920 Crystal City, Manitoba; an in depth and extensive study of the siblings of both George, Mr Margaret Fraser and his wife reveal that she cannot possibly be a niece by blood or marriage of George. At which point the questions mount up;

1) What is a girl born in Winnipeg doing in southern Manitoba with   an elderly couple?

2) Where is her birth family and how has she got there?

3) Where does she end up?

4) Is this girl actually a relative by blood or marriage or is this a fictive relationship?

The first three questions when worked through give context to the fourth but it is important to also grapple with why the four questions matter to the theorising above. The questions themselves are part of the creative skills required to undertake the task of genealogical reconstruction; after all too successful find records to add to family trees requires a process of asking questions that generate a pool of records that can be assessed for likelihood.

Alexandria Gordon’s early life arc cuts across much the received ideas we have about western kinship. She lives with people who are related to her who but don’t share a common name, with her or her mother Isobella Smart, a blood-niece of George Mutch. Following Isobella, Mrs Gordon’s death in 1900 Alexandria is sent to a great uncle rather than being looked after by the state, a state which was already involved in schemes that imported British orphans and placing them in households, tackling the national labour shortage.

Working the questions through against the evidence, George Mutch and nuclear-family had departed Aberdeenshire in 1875, Alexandria’s mother a few years later, going initially to differing parts of Ontario and yet a link was maintained that brought a child from Winnipeg to the Manitoba-US border counties 25 years later. This incidence speaks to kinship connectivity whether directly or indirectly, a process explored through archived letters by Erickson.[viii]

In 1906 and 1911 Alexandria was not living with the increasingly elderly Mutch couple but in 1916 as a young bride she is a near neighbour to them. In light of which it is permissible to construe that some form of positive relationship existed between Alexandria and the couple who had been her kin guardians in 1901. Taken as a whole over numerous lifetimes this seriously challenges Adam Smith’s dismissal of kinship in the 1790s as kinship was maintained and then renewed prior to 1875 through to at least 1916.

Kin choice is also captured as George and his wife living near Pilot Mound, Manitoba were surrounded by a slew of relatives, children, grandchildren who had made the move with them from Aberdeenshire, but Alexandria was part of their lives also and may well have been amongst those who stepped in during their later years, reciprocating the kin care they had offered her two decades before.

So to sum up it is a crying shame to limit ourselves to merely identifying who shared a common name, ancestor or for a period of time a household with some other people. Instead the search for indicators of kinship between people least likely to leave archival evidence is vastly more intriguing; the maintenance of long term networks between people and relationships with reciprocity are amongst these and they tell us about the kinship choices past people have made. We are also looking to understand how such chosen kinships functioned within the envelope of wider events like migration and the developing intrusion of the state into family affairs.

[i] A Critique of the Study of Kinship, ed. by David Murray Schneider (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984), p. 224., ‘Dividends of Kinship: Means and Uses of Social Relatedness’, ed. by  Peter Schweitzer, European Association of Social Anthropologists (London: Routledge, 2000).

[ii] Daniel Scott Smith, ‘”All in some Degree Related to each Other”: A Demographic and Comparative Resolution of the Anomaly of New England Kinship’, The American Historical Review, 94, 1 (1989), 44-79 [accessed 11/3/2014].

[iii] Leonore Davidoff, ‘Thicker than Water: Siblings and their Relations, 1780-1920’, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 464.

[iv] Marshal Sahlins, What Kinship is-and is Not (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013) [accessed 11/18/2014].

[v] John M. McCullough, kathleen M. Heath and Jessica D. Fields, ‘Culling the Cousins: Kingship, Kinship, and Competition in Mid-Millennial England’, The History of the Family, 11 (2006), 59-66.

[vi] Peter Laslett, ‘Family Kinship and Collectivity’, Continuity and Change, 3, 2 (1988), 153-165 [accessed 12/18/2014]., Steven Ruggles, ‘Multigenerational Families in Nineteenth-Century America’, Continuity and Change, 18 (2003), 139-165.

[vii] Maureen Molloy, ‘”No Inclination to Mix with Strangers”: Marriage Patterns among Highland Scots Migrants to Cape Breton and New Zealand, 1800-1916’, Journal of Family History, 11, 3 (1986), 221-243.

[viii] Charlotte Erickson, Invisible Immigrants: The Adaptation of English and Scottish Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell University Press, 1972).

Author: collating kinship

Iain Riddell is a University of Leicester PGR commencing Nov 2014 focused upon building an understanding of the application of kinship as a tool to explore UK socio-political and economic history post 1800. He has previously worked in inner urban local community and faith-based projects, specialising in marginalised communities.

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